Frances Lincoln £14.99 (192pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The National Gallery: a short history, By Charles Saumarez Smith

Painting battles in Trafalgar Square

It would be hard to improve on the site of the National Gallery. Yet, before and after it arrived at Trafalgar Square, many thought it should be elsewhere. Some wanted it squeezed into the British Museum. Others suggested a move to South Kensington, or Burlington House in Piccadilly. But in 1824, when it was about to begin life in a house in Pall Mall, a young Whig spoke out. "To be of use," he said, "it must be situated in the very gangway of London... accessible to all ranks and degrees of men". Such a democratic vision has not always prevailed. The house in Pall Mall had belonged to John Julius Angerstein, a major collector and one of the founders of Lloyds. After his death, a circle of connoisseurs, fearing the collection would be sold, persuaded the government to buy part of it as the basis for a national collection.

Britain was a long way behind other European countries in the creation of public art galleries. Timidity on the part of crown and parliament went hand in hand with the general feeling that the arts should depend on private initiative. But patriotism was a significant motive; and when the Gallery opened in 1824 the Earl of Liverpool, then prime minister, was a trustee.

Nevertheless, its role remained unclear. Was it to satisfy an existing taste for Old Masters, to provide artists with models of excellence, or to reach a broad audience, including the poor? Welcomed in some quarters - Benjamin Haydon pronounced it "the greatest step since the Elgin marbles" - it was resented by others. John Constable, a great believer in nature, feared it would encourage a deadening perfectionism.

Meanwhile, owing to gifts and acquisitions, the collection outgrew the Pall Mall house. So the Gallery moved to the north side of Trafalgar Square, into a long low building designed by William Wilkins. It was, Pugin said, too mean and utilitarian, but over the years it was expanded and enhanced.

A central tension remained, brought to the fore by acquisitions. Should the paintings have intrinsic merit as objects of beauty, or carry art-historical significance? Should they appeal to a narrow social class, or fulfil an educative purpose? This tension troubled the relationship between trustees and directors. The former tended to disregard the director's knowledge. Offers of gifts or loans were bungled.

Charles Saumarez Smith, former director of the National Gallery, brings a nice detachment to this short history. It does not replace Jonathan Conlin's fuller account, but offers a useful complement. Saumarez Smith is particularly good on the architectural history and neatly summarises each director's contribution. Detail is telling.

Kenneth Clark filled the director's office with his own private collection and kept his salary cheques in his desk drawer, uncashed. The scholar-director, Martin Davies, known as "Dry Martini", always carried a string bag with his oranges and library books. Charles Eastlake's Continental journeys in the 1850s hugely benefitted the collection, but it was his art-historian wife who acquired a nickname – "Lago Maggiore" - because of her girth. Only an institution keenly aware of its primacy could arrive at nicknames as good as these.

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